In January 2007, I wrote a book review of The Audacity of Hope called “Barack Obama’s On Our Side – But Is He a Fighter?” I thought about this while watching the President’s speech last night, which many had hoped would be a “game changer” – and some had predicted was Obama’s last chance on health care. Despite good reviews, Obama did not go where progressives wanted – and in fact gave a speech that he could have given three months ago. We already knew that he supports the public option, but the question was always if he would compromise on this key aspect.
But Obama is not one who “gets real worked up,” and a speech of bold pronouncements of what’s non-negotiable would have been out of character. While he did not deliver for progressives, the President charted a path to victory by making the moral case for health care reform – recapturing the “fierce urgency of now” that had been lost in the din of right-wing attacks. And in a very subtle gesture, he made it clear we can get the public option – if progressives can line up 51 Democrats in the Senate.
The health care debate has been infuriating, given the political will to pass real reform is there. Sixty percent of Americans support a public option, Obama is in the White House – and Democrats have huge majorities in the House and Senate. Progressives shell-shocked by decades of Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and George W. Bush are anxious to get results, and view Obama’s declining popularity as a direct result of not passing health care reform. We had a good start with the stimulus bill – why can’t we pass this too?
On the one hand, Obama’s speech last night failed to satisfy this urgent need. He gave a good description of what he wants in a health care bill – no pre-existing conditions and other patient protections, a mandate for universal coverage and more choice in providers that includes a public option – but nothing that we hadn’t heard before. With the Right hell-bent on making him fail and reports of possible “deals” that scrap the public option, progressives wanted to see the President lay out specifics about what is not negotiable.
The President re-iterated his support for the public option, but called out progressives for blowing it out of proportion – given that such a program is only likely to insure about 5% of Americans. But what Obama failed to appreciate is that progressives know the public option is a small proposal. What we really wanted was single payer, but we were willing to settle for the public option as a realistic alternative. The Left has already compromised, which is why to give up the little we have left is offensive and demeaning.
Obama repeatedly made overtures to Republicans, displaying a bipartisan fetish that was annoying. The G.O.P. has made it clear they are not interested in passing reform, so to pretend anything will change after months of tea-bagging birthers disrupting town halls is foolish. Bipartisanship is a kind gesture – but now that Democrats have 59 votes in the Senate and a 78-vote margin in the House, why pretend that Republicans matter as much as they used to? The G.O.P. is a Southern white party that does not speak for America.
But progressives who feel disappointed by Obama’s speech last night don’t really know or understand the guy. He’s a liberal Democrat who wants real health care reform, but he’s never been the aggressive partisan fighter for the Left that George Bush was for the Right. “By nature I’m not somebody who gets real worked up about things,” he wrote in The Audacity of Hope. It’s not Obama’s personality to make the kind of public pronouncements that things are “non-negotiable” – and we couldn’t have expected that.
Obama did, however, draw one line in the sand – when he said the bill must not add to the budget deficit. I cringed when I first heard this, but it’s actually a subtle hint that with pressure progressives can get what they want. Under U.S. Senate rules, passing a bill in reconciliation – rather than bringing it to the Senate floor, where it could be filibustered – requires that the proposal not add to the budget deficit. Democrats have talked about passing health care under reconciliation – where it would pass the Senate by a simple majority vote.
In other words, the Obama Administration knows that the final health care bill won’t get a single Republican vote – and is preparing to make it possible to pass a public option. But it will only become a reality if progressives focus like a laser beam in order to make that happen. Organizers need to focus on getting 51 Democratic Senators on record to support the public option, in order to keep it in the bill. And we’re almost there …
Howard Dean’s Democracy for America, HCAN and liberal bloggers at Open Left have teamed up to do a “Senate Whip Count.” Currently, 44 Democrats are on record supporting the public option – with only Joe Lieberman saying “no.” With 59 Democrats in the Senate (Ted Kennedy’s seat being the 60th), we need at least seven of the Senators who have not taken a public position to endorse the public option.
In the House, the role for activists is to play “bad cop.” Progressives have lined up 60 Democrats who will oppose any health care bill without a public option, letting it be known that it is non-negotiable. This has been effective in keeping the issue alive, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi has had to admit that a bill cannot pass her chamber without the public option. The key now is to target the House Democrats who live in safe blue districts, asking them to join the pledge.
Obama’s biggest asset is his ability to inspire Americans – his rhetoric of “hope” and “change” that motivated millions of young people to get involved. And it has been sorely lacking in the health care fight. A good friend asked several weeks ago why the President was not framing health care in moral terms. “Cost is important,” he wrote, “but doesn’t ‘we’re Americans, we’re heroes, we care for our seniors and our children and our neighbors, and so there are certain rights we all have in this country’ trump ‘deficit reduction by 2017?’”
I anxiously waited during Obama’s speech to see when he could take the debate away from policy questions that laypeople don’t follow – to the moral imperative of real health care reform. And for much of the speech, I was sorely disappointed to see him delve into the mechanics of his proposal. At 5:55 p.m. during the speech, I got an e-mail from a friend who complained: “The only reason to have this speech is to restore the president's moral authority over this issue and his popular connection with the people. This speech is the wrong approach. It's a professorial approach, not the hope/change approach.”
But Obama finished on a strong note – when he invoked the late Ted Kennedy, and gave a passionate case for liberalism that reminded us all why we voted for him. As E.J. Dionne wrote in the Washington Post, “it seemed as if a politician who had been channeling the detached and cerebral Adlai Stevenson had discovered a new role model in the fighting Harry Truman. For the cause of health-care reform, it was about time.”
It is not in Obama’s nature to give the kind of progressive line-in-the-sand speeches that his base was hoping for last night. He never campaigned that way, and the voters were not ready for that – if they were, John Edwards would be President.
But it is in Obama’s nature to give soaring speeches that appeal to our better angels – and can galvanize America to support health care reform. That’s where we need the President now. He needs to be out on the stump, making the case directly to voters.